They came out with me directly to look at the boy. The servants had gathered in the hall too, and he shivered in the window-seat with Charley standing by him, like some wounded animal that had been found in a ditch.
"This is a sorrowful case," said my guardian after asking him a question or two and touching him and examining his eyes. "What do you say, Harold?"
"You had better turn him out," said Mr. Skimpole.
"What do you mean?" inquired my guardian, almost sternly.
"My dear Jarndyce," said Mr. Skimpole, "you know what I am: I am a child. Be cross to me if I deserve it. But I have a constitutional objection to this sort of thing. I always had, when I was a medical man. He's not safe, you know. There's a very bad sort of fever about him."
Mr. Skimpole had retreated from the hall to the drawing-room again and said this in his airy way, seated on the music-stool as we stood by.
"You'll say it's childish," observed Mr. Skimpole, looking gaily at us. "Well, I dare say it may be; but I AM a child, and I never pretend to be anything else. If you put him out in the road, you only put him where he was before. He will be no worse off than he was, you know. Even make him better off, if you like. Give him sixpence, or five shillings, or five pound ten — you are arithmeticians, and I am not — and get rid of him!"
"And what is he to do then?" asked my guardian.
"Upon my life," said Mr. Skimpole, shrugging his shoulders with his engaging smile, "I have not the least idea what he is to do then. But I have no doubt he'll do it."
"Now, is it not a horrible reflection," said my guardian, to whom I had hastily explained the unavailing efforts of the two women, "is it not a horrible reflection," walking up and down and rumpling his hair, "that if this wretched creature were a convicted prisoner, his hospital would be wide open to him, and he would be as well taken care of as any sick boy in the kingdom?"
"My dear Jarndyce," returned Mr. Skimpole, "you'll pardon the simplicity of the question, coming as it does from a creature who is perfectly simple in worldly matters, but why ISN'T he a prisoner then?"
My guardian stopped and looked at him with a whimsical mixture of amusement and indignation in his face.
"Our young friend is not to be suspected of any delicacy, I should imagine," said Mr. Skimpole, unabashed and candid. "It seems to me that it would be wiser, as well as in a certain kind of way more respectable, if he showed some misdirected energy that got him into prison. There would be more of an adventurous spirit in it, and consequently more of a certain sort of poetry."
"I believe," returned my guardian, resuming his uneasy walk, "that there is not such another child on earth as yourself."
"Do you really?" said Mr. Skimpole. "I dare say! But I confess I don't see why our young friend, in his degree, should not seek to invest himself with such poetry as is open to him. He is no doubt born with an appetite — probably, when he is in a safer state of health, he has an excellent appetite. Very well. At our young friend's natural dinner hour, most likely about noon, our young friend says in effect to society, 'I am hungry; will you have the goodness to produce your spoon and feed me?' Society, which has taken upon itself the general arrangement of the whole system of spoons and professes to have a spoon for our young friend, does NOT produce that spoon; and our young friend, therefore, says 'You really must excuse me if I seize it.' Now, this appears to me a case of misdirected energy, which has a certain amount of reason in it and a certain amount of romance; and I don't know but what I should be more interested in our young friend, as an illustration of such a case, than merely as a poor vagabond — which any one can be."
"In the meantime," I ventured to observe, "he is getting worse."
"In the meantime," said Mr. Skimpole cheerfully, "as Miss Summerson, with her practical good sense, observes, he is getting worse. Therefore I recommend your turning him out before he gets still worse."
The amiable face with which he said it, I think I shall never forget.
"Of course, little woman," observed my guardian, turning to me, "I can ensure his admission into the proper place by merely going there to enforce it, though it's a bad state of things when, in his condition, that is necessary. But it's growing late, and is a very bad night, and the boy is worn out already. There is a bed in the wholesome loft-room by the stable; we had better keep him there till morning, when he can be wrapped up and removed. We'll do that."
"Oh!" said Mr. Skimpole, with his hands upon the keys of the piano as we moved away. "Are you going back to our young friend?"
"Yes," said my guardian.
"How I envy you your constitution, Jarndyce!" returned Mr. Skimpole with playful admiration. "You don't mind these things; neither does Miss Summerson. You are ready at all times to go anywhere, and do anything. Such is will! I have no will at all — and no won't — simply can't."
"You can't recommend anything for the boy, I suppose?" said my guardian, looking back over his shoulder half angrily; only half angrily, for he never seemed to consider Mr. Skimpole an accountable being.
"My dear Jarndyce, I observed a bottle of cooling medicine in his pocket, and it's impossible for him to do better than take it. You can tell them to sprinkle a little vinegar about the place where he sleeps and to keep it moderately cool and him moderately warm. But it is mere impertinence in me to offer any recommendation. Miss Summerson has such a knowledge of detail and such a capacity for the administration of detail that she knows all about it."
We went back into the hall and explained to Jo what we proposed to do, which Charley explained to him again and which he received with the languid unconcern I had already noticed, wearily looking on at what was done as if it were for somebody else. The servants compassionating his miserable state and being very anxious to help, we soon got the loft-room ready; and some of the men about the house carried him across the wet yard, well wrapped up. It was pleasant to observe how kind they were to him and how there appeared to be a general impression among them that frequently calling him "Old Chap" was likely to revive his spirits. Charley directed the operations and went to and fro between the loft-room and the house with such little stimulants and comforts as we thought it safe to give him. My guardian himself saw him before he was left for the night and reported to me when he returned to the growlery to write a letter on the boy's behalf, which a messenger was charged to deliver at day-light in the morning, that he seemed easier and inclined to sleep. They had fastened his door on the outside, he said, in case of his being delirious, but had so arranged that he could not make any noise without being heard.
Ada being in our room with a cold, Mr. Skimpole was left alone all this time and entertained himself by playing snatches of pathetic airs and sometimes singing to them (as we heard at a distance) with great expression and feeling. When we rejoined him in the drawing- room he said he would give us a little ballad which had come into his head "apropos of our young friend," and he sang one about a peasant boy,
"Thrown on the wide world, doomed to wander and roam, Bereft of his parents, bereft of a home."
quite exquisitely. It was a song that always made him cry, he told us.
He was extremely gay all the rest of the evening, for he absolutely chirped — those were his delighted words — when he thought by what a happy talent for business he was surrounded. He gave us, in his glass of negus, "Better health to our young friend!" and supposed and gaily pursued the case of his being reserved like Whittington to become Lord Mayor of London. In that event, no doubt, he would establish the Jarndyce Institution and the Summerson Almshouses, and a little annual Corporation Pilgrimage to St. Albans. He had no doubt, he said, that our young friend was an excellent boy in his way, but his way was not the Harold Skimpole way; what Harold Skimpole was, Harold Skimpole had found himself, to his considerable surprise, when he first made his own acquaintance; he had accepted himself with all his failings and had thought it sound philosophy to make the best of the bargain; and he hoped we would do the same.